Saturday, June 23, 2012

Old Town Cafe: Hauntingly Good

I am almost ashamed to admit that after having lived in Bellingham for 3 years, I have never actually been to Old Town Cafe. I have ordered take out from them several times and the food has always been excellent. So the other morning, after a series of unfortunate food related frustrations, Ashley and I decided to go to Old Town, drink mimosas and have a beautiful breakfast.

The building that Old Town is in has an interesting history. According to an article by Heidi Shiller in the Bellingham Business Journal:
[Old Town Cafe is ] housed in the building known as the Oakland Block, built in 1890 and listed on the National Historic Register, the space now occupied by the Old Town Cafe has been a restaurant for 90 years, according to Jeff Jewell, photo archivist for the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art.

In 1904, the space was one of the only African-American-owned businesses in Whatcom County, called The Mobile Restaurant. It specialized in short orders, an early form of fast food.

The space continued its custom of open-door community through several owners during the course of the century. After The Mobile Restaurant, it was Matt and Millie’s place for about 35 years, serving the rough-and-tumble crowd from the mills. Then, Brainard [the current owner] recalled, it became a “hippie spot” during the ‘60s and was officially named the Old Town CafĂ© in 1967. Its reputation grew as a place where people down on their luck could get a free meal. Brainard began working there in the early 1990s, and bought the restaurant in 1995.

The Ghost Hunter's Guide to Seattle and Puget Sound by Jeff Dwyer indicated that the Old Town Cafe is haunted:
By design, the Overland [or Oakland?] Block was home to many small businesses including a rooming house, bars, a gambling hall, and a brothel or two. With this mix of seedy enterprises and the steady flow of lost souls over the decades, it is not a surprise to find a ghost or two in this building. In fact, the present-day Old Town Cafe is haunted by at least two ghosts.

[...] Employees have witnessed dishes that float in the food-preparation area for as long as fifteen minutes. Others, including regular patrons, often hear piano music in the dining area to the left of the doorway. The tunes are described as old-time or honky-tonk, quite a surprise since no piano exists in the building.

Last year, I took one of the Good Times Girls historical walking tours of Bellingham, the Gore and Lore tour, and they told us about reports of an apparition of a old man in the area to the left of the doorway. Also, the strong smell of pipe tobacco in the early mornings when the place is deserted.

When Ashley and I walked in, there was nothing ghostly about the active bustle of happy people enjoying their food amidst the sweet smell of breakfast cooking. As we were waiting, I noted the framed menus from Matt and Millies Good Eats Cafe with .90 cent T-Bone Steaks with French Fried Potatoes. We were seated in the spacious and sunshine bright area to the left, just next to a small play area for children.

We started off with two big mimosas. Ashley got her's with grapefruit. I chose the traditional orange. The juice was fresh and sweet and the bubble was amply present and tasty. The grapefruit especially had a nice balance of flavor with the champagne. 

Ashley ordered the French Toast: "grilled sourdough bread soaked in eggs, half and half, pure vanilla and cinnamon." This was covered in creme fraiche with locally picked blueberries, served with real maple syrup. It was a work of art. Huge pieces of bread, well battered and cooked to a golden brown, sweet enough to eat without any syrup. But with a little maple syrup and the creme fraiche with blueberries, it was a beautiful thing indeed.

I ordered the Farmer's Skillet Deluxe: "homefries grilled with onions, peppers, mushrooms and celery topped with cheddar cheese, salsa and sour cream with two eggs." I ordered the eggs over medium. We also ordered a side of Hempler's bacon. 

The plate was piled high with lightly seasoned, crispy homefries mixed in a nice balance with the peppers, mushrooms, onions and celery. Covered with just the right amount of cheddar cheese. This with an excellent fresh salsa on top with a small dollop of sour cream. The eggs were done exactly as I asked, the yolk just slightly runny, with a rich buttery taste. Two pieces of buttered toast. Soon enough, everything was deliciously mixed together, bites accompanied with cripsy peppery bacon and sips of mimosas. The only problem we had was a happy one: that it was more than we could eat.

The Old Town Cafe is one of the best breakfast places in Bellingham for good reason. Sitting in the rich and fascinating historical ambiance of the place only added more magic to the meal. And, yes, I have to say something about how the only thing you will be haunted by is memory of an amazing meal. My apologies.

Old Town Cafe
316 W. Holly Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 671-4431

All photographs by Ashley Berger and Scot Casey

Hot Damn Scandal with Kristin and Will - Redlight - June 23, 2012

Pete and Charly - Tom Waits Tribute Night at Shakedown
Photo by LBDL

Hot Damn Scandal with Kristin and Will – Redlight

June 23, 2012

Walk into the Redlight with Kristin belting out the blues on a resonating steel guitar and Will accompanying her with a banjo that underlines and accents her performance. Always a good living-room feel at the Redlight, hardwood floors and high ceilings, the luminous glow of warm lighting. The summer evening brightness falling from the air as a beautiful woman sings about sorrow. There is no other place to be right now. Kristin is one of those rare singers graced with a voice beyond her years: you can hear the soul of a Deep South female blues singer from 100 years ago in the style of her phrasing and along the hard edge of her high notes.

Then, like devils from the dust, Hot Damn Scandal just sort of stands up and becomes a band. No microphones, just sitting there at the table right next to you, suddenly playing a guitar or a stand-up bass. They have an immediate presence. “Stinky” Pete Irving there in the center with that steel guitar and broken down wardrobe. His wife, Charly Baby, beautifully tattooed beside him with a musical saw. Andy “Mutha” Ingraham atop the stand-up bass and Harper “Stone” Stone kicked back on a washboard. Train whistle in the distance, cars rolling by like a tide outside, a needle sets down on a scratchy surface and Hot Damn Scandal performs music that seems to have been carved out of the broken heart of the American Dream. It is beautiful and strange. Perfect.

You feel like you have heard these songs all your life. These are your favorite pair of boots, your lucky hat, your Saturday night shirt, your old dog that disappeared after the rain. But here the familiar also has a shadow. Pete’s songs are built on traditional structures but twisted around and turned into strange objects of broken brilliance. From The Rain Comes Down: “Every day’s been feeling like the sun is falling down / and the ocean’s will all go off into steam clouds / And I’ll walk down to Atlantis with a foley and a smoke / sit down on the marble steps and catch the last show. And you’ll be there to catch my sorrows and turn them into sweet nostalgic dreams.” You can sense of ghosts of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. But right there with them is Woody Guthrie and Louis Armstrong. The music is pure performed being at the crossroads of hope and despair.

Everyone at the Redlight is snake-charmed and swaying, smiling and bobbing heads. Charly’s saw sings like an Aeolian harp in the winds of rapture: eerie and full of the ache of memory. Andy’s bass rumbles like thunder with Harper’s washboard conjuring up Bojangle rythyms. Pete’s voice and guitar playing centered in the soul of the evening.

They finish with the always sweet wedding song, “The Dust Is Calling,” Charly and Pete trading off verses until: “We had nowhere in sight ‘cause nowhere’s our home / in motion ‘cause we ain’t alone.” After having broken the heart of the room, they encore with “Twist It Up and Drink It Down.” And like sinners at a pagan tent revival, everyone gets up to dance and lose their souls.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Table by Bellingham Pasta Company: Ravioli Poetry

So it was a Thursday night and Ashley and I were wondering where to go eat. We wanted pasta but didn't want anything as heavy as D'Anna's or to drive all the way to Fairhaven to Mambo Italiano. We wanted something central to downtown, easy, light, not too expensive but with beautifully prepared food. Nothing immediately came to mind and just as we were giving in to the idea of getting a pizza at Rudy's, Ashley suggested The Table.

It is amazing that neither of us had ever been to The Table. Only a block away from The Black Drop and Modsock, I had walked by it many times. My perception was that it was too nice for lunch and yet always forgot about it as a dinner option. No longer. 

When we walked in the place was bustling with customers, not entirely full but with a sense that something was going on. Everyone seemed very happy and smiling. Our server, Anna (who also is one of the founders of the Bellingham Pasta Company, of which The Table is part), asked us if we had ever been in on a Thursday before. Of course, we hadn't. She told us it was Ravioli Night. Every Thursday from 5 to 9 pm, you can choose from several types or ravioli and also choose from a variety of sauces.

It sounded perfect for what we wanted. We ordered a glass of a nice Cabernet, a small Caesar Salad and a Carrot Ginger Dill Soup to start. The soup was well structured with a rich creamy texture and just a light touch of ginger. Ashley thought it was simple and beautiful, one of the best she had ever had. It made her very very happy. The Caesar had well proportioned pieces of chopped Romaine at the ideal coolness to still be refreshing and crisp, but not so cold as to remove the flavor. Lightly covered with an exceptional house-made dressing, accented with an abundance of grated pecoino romano and croutons.

We ordered two small plates of ravioli: the Sock-Eye Salmon with shrimp in a pink vodka tomato cream sauce and the Italian Sausage with a Gorgonzola Cheese sauce. Both came with a fresh slice of delicious Focaccia  bread. First taste of the ravioli and we knew we had found something special. The pasta was prepared as good as I have ever experienced: delicate and light but with balanced structure, holding the perfect amount of stuffing. The sauces were also supreme. In particular the pink vodka tomato was nuanced and subtle with its balance of flavors. Combined with the gentle smokiness of the salmon, it was like eating a poem. Beautiful. 

The service was attentive and friendly, informative but not overbearing. We had arrived close to nine but never felt rushed in any way. Everything came out from the kitchen at just the right time, indicative of a well run kitchen. 

It is worth noting from the website: 

It has been our mission from the start to be known both for our consistently exceptional food and our commitment to supporting the local economy. The local abundance of wineries, breweries, organic farms, wild seafood, and ethically raised meats has made our choice to source locally obvious and enjoyable. We feel it is essential to make subtle changes to our menu every few months to highlight seasonal food while always focusing on what we do best...fresh pasta!
We will most definitely be back for the Thursday Ravioli night, but also to try everything else on the menu.

The Table by Bellingham Pasta Company
100 North Commercial Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

All photographs by Ashley Berger and Scot Casey

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cheese Meat(s) Beer: The Delicious Trinity


However, 250 Flora has opened in the same location. It is excellent. We hope to have a review up soon.

Post-work at the Black Drop and Modsock. Pre-movie (First Position) at the Limelight. Ashley and I were looking for a good place to get a couple of glasses of good wine or champagne and a great burger. Working in the area, we didn't want to hit up any of the usual suspects. The we remembered Cheese Meat(s) Beer, the new cafe/restaurant located inside the Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building at the corner of Flora and Grand . We'd been there about a month ago and had a great burger.

Ian, Travis and Annalou greeted us warmly as we entered. The interior space was full but not crowded and we decided to sit at one of the comfortable wooden bars next to the windows. More people came after we were seated and sat outside in the tranquil plaza beneath the luminous Lightcatcher wall, just beyond a set of Zen-like boulders set into the corner near the cafe. Just after 7 pm, the sun lowering, the place was full of an almost ethereal light. 

We ordered a couple of glasses of Spanish Cava to start off with. The white sparking wine was served at a perfect chilled temperature, refreshing and at the same time still offering a palate full of subtle flavor. Apricot with pear, slight citrus finish. Dancing on the tongue with freshness. 

Noted this nice statement on the menu: "Everything on the menu is made from scratch by us, unless noted. All our ingredients are from local farmers byway of Acme Farms, Northwest Earth and Ocean and Farmer Ben."

We decided to start off with the Big White Bean Salad: "house smoked local caught marble salmon, corona beans, mama lil's pickled Hungarian goat peppers and capers served with local greens and lemon vinny." 

The salad was beautifully presented in a shallow bowl, mixed and dressed elegantly. We always enjoy it when every bite seems to offer up a slightly new combination of flavors. First the delicately smoked salmon, then the crisp presence of the local greens. Next the sweet lightly roasted goat peppers with sweet onion and the rich capers, then the rich and textured white corona beans. Well balanced, light, full of rich and bursting flavors, complimenting with a few sips of Cava in between. Suddenly, the movie no longer mattered. It was all just too good sitting there in ease-full declining light of the day eating such beautifully prepared food, drinking excellent wine, no reason to go anywhere else in the world at that moment in time.

Next up was the Alsatian Style Pizza: "with roasted garlic creme fraiche, Italian sausage, shiitake mushrooms and shaved cheddar." Delivered to the table by the chef, Travis, on a sturdy cutting board with a dressed arrangement of greens beside it. The crust was light and redolent of homemade bread, not too thick and cooked to a golden brown. Just looking at it was delicious. The garlic creme fraiche and shaved cheddar were in sweet balance with each other. The Italian sausage was rich and tender. The shiitake mushrooms were good. I thought they were slightly overpowered by the richness of the other ingredients. However, Ashley thought it was "near perfection." Adding cool dressed greens to each bite made for another beautiful course.

The last item of our "quick bite before the movie" was the No Condiment Burger: "Long Valley Ranch beef, Ralf's pretzel bun and house pickles served with local greens dressed with apple vinny." We added Beecher's Flagship cheddar.

What arrived at our table was a thing of beauty for lovers of the simple burger sandwich: the fresh pretzel bun cut in half with a thick patty of juicy perfectly cooked meat and a healthy slab of slightly melted cheddar cheese. To the side, house sweet pickles and fresh greens with a light apple vinny dressing. We turned the sandwich over and layered the delicious pickles over the meat and the greens over the bun. First taste was like burger heaven, juices dancing around and getting all involved and happy with each other, soaking into the bun and dripping onto the greens on the plate. Every bite getting better and better. Until it was just an empty plate and laughter and damn that was a great burger!

By the time we left (10 happy minutes late for the movie), the place was comfortably full. Obviously, word of mouth had spread that Cheese Meat(s) Beer is one of the best new places in town to go for an excellent lunch or dinner. Ashley and I will definitely be going back. I mean, we had some cheese and we had beautiful meat and excellent Cava, but didn't even try any of the fine selection of beer. Something we will do very soon. Thanks, Travis, Annalou and Ian. Great job!

Cheese Meat(s) Beer
250 Flora St
Bellingham, WA 98225
Wednesday - Friday • noon-8pm
Saturday and Sunday • All day Brunch • 10am-5pm

All photos by Ashley Berger and Scot Casey

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bonnie Prince Billy – Tuesday, June 12th - The Business, Anacortes - June 12, 2012

Will Oldham in Bellingham
Photo by Ashley Berger

Bonnie Prince Billy - The Business, Anacortes

Tuesday, June 12th

Tried to make it to Bonne Prince Billy at the in-store at Everyday Music here in Bellingham but could not get away from work. So I headed down to Anacortes to The Business to catch him down there. A small shop on the corner in the historic part of downtown, packed with real record albums, CDs, books. You can feel the Pulse of all things relevant to music and the arts everywhere you turn: posters of past and future shows, Vince Carmody, Scott Campbell, copies of Craphound. Vinyl records presented as rare and beautiful objects. 

Bonne Prince Billy is set up in a corner of the shop in front of an old iron door to a vault. Above him is a convex mirror straight out of a Parmigianino painting. He is wearing a green trucker hat, fussing with cables, tuning up, ambient strums, washing over the capacity crowd. Strikes me as unassuming, like a farmer who just wandered in, Wendell Berry, tired from the day’s work, picking up a guitar. 

Then the first words of the first song bring it all back to Will Oldham: “There is no God.” The voice seems weary and tired at its core, giving weight to the oblique lyricism in an almost prayer-like tone at times before rising into upper registers that quiver with a felt presence of pain. The authenticity there connects him to the crowd immediately. There is a sort of skillful unpracticed beauty that makes it seems as if he is singing the song for the first time. In the pauses and the shivers of the drawn out vowels. His playing is deceptively simple and plaintive., in the strings slow strum sounding from the interior of the song. In Willow Trees Bend, the voice breaks beautiful with quiet implorations honoring the simple presence of being: “when faced with your fire I will surrender to you.” 

He invites the audience to ask him anything, request any song. Plays Madeleine Mary. Stops mid-song to tall a story about being on a boat the night before that was headed to the Arctic, that he wanted to stay on it and see narwhals and polar bears, but had fears of being trapped on the boat at sea. There is a subtle sense of humor in his delivery. Returns to the song now resonate with water. 

Wolf Among Wolves is requested. The beauty of a simple song played slowly. The ghost of religion seems to haunt “Ease Down the Road.” He has the amazing ability to scatter the pieces of a song in the space between himself and the audience, like a shaman emptying a medicine bag of its bones, and then reassemble them mid-song into something more powerful and strange. In this manner, with “I See A Darkness” there is a sense that you are listening to a Holy Language. He closed out with “I Am A Cinematographer” showing a mastery of the silent spaces inside of songs, leaving the audience breathless and still, each of us deeply satisfied to have experienced something rich and strange. 

Will Oldham at The Business in Anacortes
Photo by Ashley Berger

Interview with Will Oldham 

The interview took place upstairs at The Business in Anacortes after an in-store performance by Bonnie Prince Billy. The interview was conducted by Scot Casey and Ashley Berger.

Scot Casey: Thanks very much for sitting down with us. That was a great set.

Will Oldham: Thank you.

SC: Listening to you, there is a sense that your music is immediately accessible but there is also of something being hidden or occluded, an idiosyncratic private language. Curiously, everybody, when they hear it, feels like it is part of their own world. You connect with people in a very individual way like this. Do you write songs with this in mind, hyper-specific to your own biography?

WO: I try to scour the world for codes that translate from an outer experience to an inner experience but that are shared. That is what I use for singing. Not things that are specific but things that already exist as shared images or phrases. Because the whole point is to have a communication with somebody else, not to express something that is specific and individual but something that is shared.

SC: I was reminded of a monk singing Psalms.

WO: Yeah, we just recorded three Psalms in Australia two months ago.

SC: Do you believe your music is religious?

WO: I don’t think my songs are religious.

SC: I wonder about the way you address the idea of God. I loved the way you started off the set earlier with “There is no god.”

WO: Yeah, it’s language and it seems our relationships are based on these looming figures and to outright deny them is to cut out such a huge part of meaning in our communication that to do so would seem a waste of time. Unless you have something very quickly to replace it that someone else can understand and share with you. But why not? An organized religion, regardless of its tyranny or whatever, still allows you to take from it, appropriate, something good.

AB: But some of your music must be personal, your own stories, like you are working through something with the song.

WO: You can’t work through something because you have to sing the song again. And if you work through it, then the song would have no value anymore – if that was the point of the song.

AB: So how much of it do you think would be a good song for others to hear and how much is something that you yearn to express, that you have to get out?

WO: Well, the reason that the song exists is, ideally, for someone else.

SC: You have the ability to take a song and break it into all of these beautiful fragments. Then you throw them out as you are singing and pick them up and rearrange them in a new formation as you are singing. Is that something you feel that you do?

WO: Yeah, especially when I am playing on my own. It is always trying to stay ready within the song, to be surprised by the next part of what the song has to deliver.

SC: What comes through on the recordings is a rawness, an authenticity. And to see you do it live, to see you reconstructing the music in the process of playing it was beautiful. The emotion that I heard didn’t seem as if it were a well-practiced thing, even though it is well-practiced, so it came across as with a rare honesty. That has always been one of the aspects of your music that has impressed me, that honesty.

WO: Yeah, it is what is happening. It could be a song that I have performed any number of times and spent a long time writing in preparation for it to be accessible in that way. It is a manner of discovering the song.

AB: Are you satisfied after you write a song? Do you feel fulfilled?

WO: Every once in a while, yeah. Mostly no. But usually that’s the idea. It’s a really good feeling when it happens.

AB: You sound very free and fearless. I don’t know if that is your experience or not. Your voice sounds very fearless.

WO: Well, with a lot of re-writing you could go beyond what you feel comfortable with and then rewrite it, pulling it back to something, to start to know where you really don’t feel comfortable. But, you know, you should have some guilty pleasures as you are making things. I really would like to put in this thing, even though it’s really stupid, but then you put it in and it actually isn’t stupid. It feels really good to do that. Makes you feel good about it.

SC: Are you familiar with Wendell Berry at all?

WO: Yeah. I was in a one-act play that he wrote when I was a teenager. I think it was one of the first or one of the only attempts he made at drama. I don’t think he was all that pleased with it but it was a nice experience.

SC: He has a book called Standing By Words where he discusses the idea of what binds people together in a community are words, to give one’s word, the idea of a vow, that contract between two people in marriage, agreements between friends or a singer and an audience. The integrity of those words, that you stand by your words, is what creates the ground for authentic language. There is a sense of rural honesty, of living your words, saying what you mean. Do you feel that is something you strive to do in your writing? Or is that just putting too much weight on everything?

WO: Well, it would be nice to not put that much weight on everything but I don’t feel that’s an option. For some reason, it seems like words, spoken words, written words, are too strong.

AB: Does that every give you fear, that weight?

WO: It gets heavy, heavy, heavy. I am sure that causes stress and anxiety.

SC: Listening to you, I hear things come out as heavy as in “I See A Darkness.”  Then there is a lighter element that kind of give you a breath as a listener.

AB: A balance. It feels really good when you hear those strong and light moments. That is what structures the music so beautifully, the balance between those soft fragile moments and those that are super powerful. You do that well.

WO: I try to depend as much as possible on, usually, other musicians. But tonight, in these instances, it works. It is a great feeling to know that the words can stay the same every time and song can be completely different.

AB: Did you ever do any voice training? Because it sounds at times so technically perfect and other times so not…

WO [laughter]: Yeah.

AB: That’s what I like about it.

WO: Well I know a lot of what my voice can do. I know what it can’t do. But rather than feel like that means I can’t do things it means that, well, this type of expression is reserved for this aspect of my voice.

AB: I think it comes across as trusting.

WO: It is trying to find the best way to express the song. Listening to other records, other people’s music, finding when a voice, when a genetic quality of somebody’s voice or their ability to navigate a song, when it works with their style or their timbre and think, ok, if they can do that with that with that thin warbly thing and move me, then that means that is valid and I can see if I can use that. But, you know, some people will use that same thing and have it not work. Why doesn’t it work? Because, I don’t know, their commitment wasn’t right or because they were a half-step off in the key that they should have been singing in.

AB: Your voice sounds so comforting because you sound like you trust it.

WO: I know at this point, at any moment in a song, there’s got to be someplace I can go with my voice. Then it is a matter of thinking really quickly where is that going to be?

AB: Because sometimes it is surprising.

WO [laughter]: Oh yeah, yeah, always surprising. To me it is always surprising.

SC: Will, thank you for your time. We appreciated being able to hear you perform and talk to you. Enjoy your time in Anacortes.

AB: Yeah, thank you so much.

WO: Thank you.

Monday, June 11, 2012

City of Lost Children - The Green Frog - June 11, 2012

City of Lost Children at The Green Frog

June 11, 2012

I first heard City of Lost Children while sitting outside of the Temple Bar a month or so ago. I kept hearing these eerie melodies and fragments of music drift in and out, like trying to find a radio station while driving through an apocalyptic landscape.

So when I wandered into an unusually crowded Green Frog a couple of Mondays ago and discovered that The City of Lost Children were playing, I found a chair in a dark corner and tried to figure out what was going on. Imagine finding a broken music box in the rubble of a desolated city. When you open it, the springs and wheels whir and spin with nostalgic mystery, creating a tune you have heard many times before but cannot place, the soundtrack to a forgotten film, full of saudade, the longing for something absent, or Nabakov’s toska, a longing with nothing to long for. The City of Lost Children perform this with stunning musicianship and beauty, each song merging into the other, some like broken fragments of bone and mirror, torn photographs and faded ribbons. To watch all of these complicated elements unfold onstage is like watching a magician make all of your memories disappear into a hat and then reappear as bright and shining objects of ineffable beauty.

Eight musicians form the City of Lost Children Chamber Orchestra. Three elegantly dressed women stand in front, a mezzo soprano, a soprano and a contralto. They sing beautifully, figures seeming stepping straight out of a German expressionist film or some unknown aesthetic experiment of Leni Riefenstahl. Behind them is a conductor, working sublime alchemy with the sound. Players seem to be hidden on stage, curled into corners, sitting on the edges, luminescent within the shadows. A woman plays a pedal harp. There is violin, accordion, bass, keyboards, guitar. But nothing like you have heard before in Bellingham. All of the songs are short, perfect music box performances. The players seem like sophisticated automatons from a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. As the set comes to a close, there is a post-Weimar decadence that has filled the room, dance tunes for the end of times, magic theater, gypsy vaudeville, muted beat-box from the depths of a demonic dream. The three singers are there like sirens out of a Kafka parable: there is no fear to hearing them sing, rather it is their silence that haunts one into madness.

City of Lost Children are playing Monday nights at the Green Frog.

City of Lost Children Set - Green Frog - July 2012

City of Lost Children Set - Green Frog - July 2012

Dragon River: The Taste of Northeastern China

 Just the other day, Ashley and I were wishing there was a good place downtown to eat Chinese food. Only a few days later, I stopped in to Modsock and she told me that the owners of  the restaurant next door, which used to be the City Grill, had decided to change over Chinese cuisine. Urania and Ben went over for lunch and said it was good. I also heard from several customers at the Black Drop that it was excellent. So Ashley and I decided to go there for dinner.

I had never been to the City Grill so I had no real expectations for the place. It seemed as if the decor was still in transition. There were some beautiful scrolls and paintings on the walls. But some of the fixtures and the tablecloths in particular were slightly jarring to the Chinese aesthetic, giving the place a warm "family-style" feel. However, the overall ambiance was comfortable and friendly.

Sue, the owner, was also our server and could not have been nicer. (Her husband, Frank, is also the cook. Very much a family affair.) We started off with some hot Jasmine tea taking the edge off of our appetites.

The front of the menu explained that the cuisine was from the Black Dragon River in Northeast China:

These are the meals served on family dinning tables and featured on restaurant menus throughout the region. The popularity of these dishes stems from a complicated preparation and elaborate cooking process, which results in turning ordinary ingredients into extraordinary dishes with exceptional flavor, texture and aroma. Dragon River makes it possible for you to enjoy the taste of Northeastern China without having to travel there.

Born and raised in Heilongjiang Province, Northeast China, we grew up with this family style food and loved the aroma of country cooking wafting from the kitchen. Some of the food was everyday dishes, some we could only afford for holidays. But all were deliciously happy meals and now wonderful memories. ...

At Dragon River, you will enjoy freshly prepared food with quality ingredients, locally grown when appropriate and available. You will taste the distinctive different sauces of each dish, the handmade-from-scratch buns, dumplings, wontons, and savory hearty soup, all free of MSG.
After some pondering over the menu, wanting to try everything, we decided to start with an order of Pot Stickers and Crab Cheese Wontons.

The wontons came out first and we could instantly see that they were indeed homemade, unlike the typical wontons at most places in town. The wonton dough was flaky and light, cooked to perfection, not too greasy. The filling was substantial and delicious, a nice balance between the crab and cheese.

The Pot Stickers arrived a few moments later, beautifully prepared. The dough was thick and good enough to eat on its own. But with the filling was sublime. The sauce was excellent. What was immediately apparent to us was, again, the home-style preparation. We felt as if we were having dinner at Sue and Frank's home.

Ashley and I both remarked that we could've easily just had these two items and been more than satisfied.

Next up were the main courses: Pork Rib Stew and Chicken Fried Rice. They arrived with perfect timing just as we were finishing the appetizers. Sue brought them to the table with a smile. The Pork Rib Stew looked and smelled amazing: a half dozen meat falling off the bones ribs in a bowl with potatoes and green beans, seasoned wonderfully.

The Chicken Fried Rice was also very good, with just the right amount of egg and chicken. We each made a bed of the steamed and fried rice and spooned heaping amounts of the Pork Rib Stew over it. It was beautiful. Seasoned very well. The meat so tender that it was easy to eat with chopsticks. 

Sue was attentive to our every need and was genuinely happy with how much we enjoyed the food. We told her we would be coming back. Often. We committed ourselves to trying everything on the menu. Dragon River is a beautiful new addition to the dining options around downtown Bellingham. I could not recommend it more highly.

Dragon River
1319 Cornwall Ave. Suite 102. Bellingham, WA 98225 

All photos by Ashley Berger and Scot Casey